Shelton school cafeteria workers protest wages, work conditions

SHELTON — School cafeteria workers took to the street Tuesday to protest what they called unfair working conditions and substandard wages they face under Whitsons Culinary Group, the district’s food provider. 

Unite Here Local 217 members gathered next to Sunnyside School on River Road, marching and chanting slogans to alert people to their plight and, according to union organizer Isadora Milanez, garner support as they attempt to negotiate a new contract with the New York-based food service provider. 

“It is horrible what they have done,” said Janet Allen, lead café worker at Shelton High, who has worked in the district’s cafeterias for more than four decades. “I’ve been here through five companies. This is by far the worst company to negotiate with, to do business with. It’s terrible." 

Allen said group hoped to draw parents' attention to the working conditions the lunch workers were experiencing.

"They want us to do more and more, but there is no one hired to help," she said. "People are working two, three different jobs a day to get things done.” 

Karen Dittrich, Whitsons' vice president of marketing and communications, said the company has been “negotiating in good faith to reach a fair agreement" with the union.

"We have made positive progress in responding to the union's requests and look forward to continued progress at the next labor meeting on Nov. 1, 2022," she said.

Karen Gersbeck, the company's human resources business partner, said Whitsons "understands the concerns voiced by the union and is sympathetic" but added the current economic conditions were a challenge.

“Whitsons is working closely with the Shelton School District to carefully consider and address the union’s requests in a responsible way and with the interests of the children and greater Shelton community in mind," she said.

The company, in a statement released Wednesday, said it prides itself on treating employees fairly and being a "great place to work,” and these efforts "have resulted in harmonious employee relations at virtually all our locations, both union and non-union." 

Dittrich said Whitsons has served Shelton since 2017.

“Our focus is to provide a quality and financially sound program for the benefit of the students, the district, and the Shelton taxpayers we serve," she said.

According to Milanez, the Shelton cafeteria workers’ contract expired in August. The union, which includes 42 members, has tried to negotiate a new deal with little success. Milanez said the union is seeking a $1 per hour raise per year over the length of any new three-year deal. The workers also are requesting a “reasonable” workload. 

“We have made no progress,” said Milanez. 

Whitsons, she said, has countered with an offer of  a $.40 raise in year one, and $.30 for the second and third years. The company has rejected union proposals intended to reduce the employees’ workloads, Milanez said. Those proposals have included offering limited services during COVID outbreaks, hiring floaters, and training people to be able to move between schools to help where needed.

In a statement, union rep Ian Dunn said the protracted 2018 contract negotiations had resulted in diminished work conditions.

“Now the company is back for more, even though these women were on the front line during the pandemic, making lunches when the schools were closed,” Dunn said. “Last year they produced double the lunches for Shelton children compared to pre-pandemic levels while short staffed.” 

Worse, he said, the company has profited from the increased business, and been reimbursed by the pandemic-induced federal lunch relief funds. 

In addition, Milenez said the free meals all students continue to receive doubled the demand for school lunches. As a result, she said, each worker was essentially doing the work that would have been done by two people before the pandemic.

“They have shown no respect for the work you do,” Milanez said on the megaphone Tuesday. “We have been bargaining since the school year began. We were clear. The most important things to us were fair wages and reasonable workload. Not an easy workload, a reasonable workload.” 

Jason Dokla, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Works Union Local 919 in Farmington, stopped by to show support as a Shelton resident and parent. 

“At some point one of you or all of you has served my child,” he said. “Thank you for the hard work you do. Do not let your employer get away without giving you a fair contract."

Dokla said it was "better to have a seat at the table than wait for scraps to be thrown off onto the floor."

You have a voice, you have solidarity," he said. "Don’t back down.” 

Board of Education Chair Kathy Yolish said the board has no input with the Whitson’s contract but added she believes everyone does deserve a fair wage. 

“I personally know how dedicated these workers are,” Yolish said. “Inflation has hit everyone in their daily lifestyles, and I am hopeful that the contract will be settled in a fair and equitable manner. The one thing I am certain of is the workers truly do the job out of care and love for the kids — they just want the compensation they feel they so deserve.”